Featured in Colorado Review
Hellcat CourtFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Summer 2010
Hip-Hop was what we called him, and he lived across the street, mostly in his half-open garage where he slouched shirtless in a lawn chair, smoking cigarettes and texting for hours at a time. He wore big, white-framed plastic sunglasses and baggy pajama pants with a loud print of electric green surf-company logos. Cars would come and go in his driveway all day. They’d pull in with windows down and subwoofers thumping, and, like a grouchy, pimp-limping carhop, he’d stroll over and lean against the driver’s side, blowing a blue jet of smoke up over his shoulder and chatting for a moment. Then he’d disappear inside his house and return, lean fully inside the window and punch knuckles with the driver and passengers a couple of times, and then off they’d go and he’d return to his lawn chair. Other characters lived there too, or rotated in and out—a girl we called Two-Tone for her blonde-on-top, black-on-bottom hair color; Bulldog, a bald, mashed-faced guy; and Little Pants, an impossibly skinny guy on the cutting edge of teenage fashion in his breathlessly tight pants. Various toddlers came and went, herded by girls with stringy hair and big jackets. The entire cast was white, and our rural California farming town had no more than twenty thousand residents.
I was the neighbor directly across the street. Out our front windows and across our lawns, we stared at the tableaus of each other’s lives. What he saw was a lawn prone to overgrowth and dandelions; an old blue pickup truck with Texas plates parked in the driveway, its back window covered in navy fighter squadron stickers; and a garage, when it yawned open late at night, with dusty surfboards and mountain bikes that never came down off their pegs, and a crumbling wall of still-packed moving boxes. What he saw was a couple on opposite schedules, a house permanently awake and half empty, the way station we lived in while we waited for the next reassignment to another town somewhere else in America.
We didn’t like each other, Hip-Hop and I. We were just close enough in age that I hated his music not for its genre, rap and hip-hop, but his choices within that genre—T.I., for instance, and not Tupac. He enjoyed watching me stretch for my daily run, and if I were a few years younger I might have mistaken this for idle, mildly erotic admiration of the female form, a twisted sort of compliment. What bugged me about it, though, was that he didn’t drop his gaze when I caught him staring and scowled back; his stare was a territorial challenge, and it made me feel like I had less of a right to my place there. Also, I didn’t appreciate that he once invited his buddies to set up more lawn chairs to watch and laugh while I attempted to mow and edge the lawn one sunny morning while my husband, Ross, was deployed on an aircraft carrier for a six-month stretch. They formed a line, the three of them, their white torsos and chicken ribs exposed to the sun, their eyes hidden beneath sunglasses. I kept getting tangled up in the rose bush trying to groom the grass beneath it, and I put the wrong gas, the gas mixed with oil, into the mower, and it began to smoke. I wanted to cry. They cracked open beers.
Mostly, though, we were able to avoid each other. I worked and went to evening classes in another city, and he didn’t open his garage most mornings until around eleven o’clock, so the only times we saw each other were late nights when I came home from school and idled in the street for a few seconds while my garage door lifted, framing a well-lit, wide-angle exposure of my stored life. His half-open door spilled fluorescent light and exposed a card table covered in a forest of red plastic cups, folding chairs, scattered ash trays, and a child’s plastic swimming tub, all dusty and propped up on one end. The light lengthened the shadow of him in his chair and caught the puffs of smoke as they drifted above his head. He still wore the shades.
. . .
I love The Wire, the HBO series about Baltimore cops chasing down drug rings in the projects, and I go through long stretches where I sacrifice sleep at the end of a sixteen-hour day just to see whether McNulty and Lieutenant Daniels finally catch up with Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, Wee-Bey, Poot, Bodie, and Little Man. I love the cops, but I love the dealers too, and I especially love the ones caught in the middle, like the renegade Omar, who sticks up drug dealers all over town and takes their stashes. I think about them even when I’m not watching the show. I wonder about their lives, which direction I would take if circumstances were different and I were in their situation, either protecting a corner or trying to crack a drug ring.
This was what I was doing home alone one Friday night, thinking about plot machinations on The Wire after watching three episodes back to back on DVD. I had just flipped off the TV and was heading back across the house to bed when four explosions, the biggest firecrackers I’d ever heard, went off in front of my house. I felt the percussions in my chest and heard the windows rattle in their frames, and before I even knew what I was doing, I was on my knees in the living room, crawling fast toward the kitchen wall to reach up and turn off the light switch. Gunshots. They were gunshots. I’d heard shooting once in my neighborhood in Texas when I was a kid and my dad was away, and the first thing my mom did was turn out the lights and tell us to get on the floor and stay away from the windows.
I dragged my purse down from the kitchen table, dug out my phone, and dialed 911. The few times in my life I’ve ever called 911, I’ve always been put on hold. This never fails to shock me. The recording says something ridiculous like, “911 Emergency, please hold for an available operator. Thank you.”
On hold, I watched the glow of red taillights move slowly across the ceiling through the open curtains in my living room. The lights passed, and then a brighter version, the added whites of a car in reverse, came back again. I held my breath and crawled out into the living room, both wishing I were staying put and knowing I could get a glimpse of the car that might help the cops. Already I was imagining a narrative of investigation and reaching to figure out what my part could be. I peeked quickly, once, and saw a beat-up white Neon, and as I ducked back down I heard its engine whine as it raced off down the street.
Finally, the 911 operator came through and I gave her my address and told her what happened. She asked if I knew what kind of gun was used, and I surprised myself by making a guess—a handgun for sure, because I knew what my grandfather’s hunting rifles and shotguns sounded like and it wasn’t that, and possibly a .45 Glock for the bigger explosion instead of the pop of a 9-millimeter. Ross’s buddy, a former marine, had taken us target shooting once on a camping trip and I had been prepared to hate the collection of handguns he laid out, but then discovered that I was an excellent shot and preferred the stronger kick and louder noise of the Glock. I have felt shamefully thrilled around guns ever since, a weird mix of a gun control supporter’s revulsion and an enthusiast’s attraction I can’t quite sort out.
The cops were there within minutes. The ceiling in my still-dark house flashed red-white-blue, red-white-blue. They blocked either end of the street and spent the next two and a half hours walking around with their Maglites looking for bullet casings. They inspected every little bit of trash in the gutters, and then they walked through my yard and Hip-Hop’s yard, shining their lights along the outside walls and the windows and behind the bushes.
I didn’t go outside. I closed my curtains and kept my lights off and stood at the very edge of my living room window in the corner where I could see through a half-inch space between the curtain and the wall. I made sure no light touched me, but I made sure I had an unobstructed view. I wanted to help, I wanted to know what had happened, and I wanted to participate in the story that was unfolding out in the street, but I also didn’t want to tell anyone that Ross was deployed, that I was alone and would be for the next six months. I was scared, and the fear held me motionless.
There was a party in progress at Hip-Hop’s that night and everyone spilled out onto the front lawn. He gestured wildly and darted around between cops and a little knot of partygoers gathered off to one side, smoking and texting and arguing with each other. Every time a cop approached the front door, Hip-Hop headed him off. A girl with a ponytail screamed at someone on her phone and then stomped out to the street where one of the cops had found a bullet hole in the back window of her car. The hole was small and neat. A few of my other neighbors came out to stand awkwardly in the street, talking to cops with note pads. José, a small-engine mechanic who lived next door to me and worked out of his backyard, and Mr. Enriquez, who tended a large menagerie of concrete yard animals, came out to talk, but Hip-Hop hovered within earshot and the conversations were short.
Eventually, another cop found a bullet casing in the front yard and a half-hearted cheer went up in the crowd. The cop marked the spot by picking up a child’s purple sand bucket from the flowerbed and turning it upside down over the casing. Four bullet holes were found and noted: two in Hip-Hop’s kitchen wall, one through the wall in his living room, one in the back window of the car parked out front. I bit through the last of my fingernails and went to bed, feeling my way in the dark.
. . .
The Naval Air Station where Ross works is about ten miles down the highway from the town where we lived. The base and the town share a zip code and a name, but for reasons of practicality (the noise of jets and the need for crash zones), fields of tomatoes and alfalfa and cotton separate them. The base has a “Main Side,” where all of the housing and administrative offices are located, as well as the gym, the hospital, the elementary school, and the playing fields, and an “Ops Side,” where the airstrips and the hangars and the weapons bunkers and the shooting ranges are. Both sides are guarded by checkpoints where you must stop and show ID, and where only cars with designated military stickers are let in. The stickers on my car indicate that Ross is an officer, and somehow that means that I get a salute from the guard, even though I’m just a spouse. It’s nice. I love the salute, and a really good one, one that snaps and moves a lounging, easy human posture to a flagpole sharp and clean, can even kind of choke me up.
Even so, I’ve never wanted to live on base. There are things about it that creep me out, like the zigzag concrete maze they sometimes put up to make you slow way down and give them a good look at you while you approach. There’s also a camouflaged hut just beyond the gate in a little median on the Ops Side, and Ross tells me an MP spends his whole day in there with an M-16 and a water bottle, just in case someone breaches the gate.
These things remind me of the international compound in Saudi Arabia where I lived briefly as a teenager when my father worked for an Arab oil company. The gate guards had mirrors on the ends of sticks, and one inspected every car’s chassis for bombs while the other checked ID and asked what you were doing there.
There’s also the privacy issue. On our old compound in Saudi Arabia, the grapevine grew thick and wild. The Canadian woman across the street used to watch me through a chink in her blinds as I sat on my front stoop talking to my boyfriend. Eyes were everywhere, and people took note of where your car was parked and for how long. This was also a country where women were not allowed to drive outside of compounds, and even if they were, there weren’t many places that were safe to go. Maximum-security family prison, my mom called it.
So when Ross and I got married, I made a rule: no base living. As much as possible, we’ve lived “out in town” wherever we were stationed and worked to cultivate networks of non-military friends, separation of life and work, and a place to be off-duty—two necessary worlds.
But then the drive-by happened, and it had to be right at the beginning of Ross’s first deployment, a six-month stretch in the Pacific during which I’d have only sporadic e-mail contact with him and a few phone calls when he was in port. Other navy wives tell me that this is how it goes—they leave and things fall apart. I wondered whether to wait it out, hope that his brush with danger and with the law would chasten Hip-Hop. Maybe things would quiet down.
They didn’t. The night after the shooting, Hip-Hop and his buddies were up welding something until dawn, the lightning stutter of spark-light flashing around the edges of the closed garage door, and then an epic party started that lasted for three days. Everyone parked only on my side of the street, and trucks raced up and down the block, letting their aftermarket mufflers rattle all the car alarms awake. I thought of The Wire’s plot-lines of retribution, how Avon Barksdale spent days “tooling up” and organizing a hit-back when a competing drug network murdered two of his corner boys, knowing his credibility and reputation were at stake if he let it slide. I kept telling myself this situation was different—it was no big deal, this was rural California, not Baltimore—but I also stopped sleeping. Finally, I asked for a base-housing application.
. . .
I could hear it through my car windows, even over my stereo blasting Lupe Fiasco’s “Little Weapon”: “This is a drill, this is a drill. NAS Lemoore is now safe. Repeating: this is a drill, this is a drill. NAS Lemoore is now safe.”
I was on base to drop off my housing application and hit the gym for another blistering, boredom-inspired workout. The gate guards, each normally armed with just a holstered pistol, were carrying M-16s and wearing ammo vests and helmets. Every seventh car, apparently, was being searched, and all the administrative buildings were on lock-down. Had I been a base resident, I would have seen the item in the base paper, the Golden Eagle, warning everyone about the post-9/11 security drill scheduled for this day. As it was, I had to present my ID at the door of each of the four offices I needed to visit, each of the two times I had to visit them that morning in the labyrinthine process of arranging my move and collecting signatures on a whole notebook of forms in triplicate.
The process was exhausting, but the people were nice. A lady with a tattoo of Hello Kitty over crossbones and the words “Live to DIE” tattooed on her wrist showed me three open houses I could choose from, all on streets named after fighter jets: Dauntless Avenue, Rhino Street, and Hellcat Court. I went for Hellcat, mostly for the name.
. . .
Though I didn’t ask for it, I suspect I may have gotten a boost on the waiting list to move into base housing. The Hellcat house was empty and available, but I still had another month to finish the lease on our house out in town. This was fine, I told myself. I needed the time to clean and pack up. But I also found myself doing little things like leaving an old pair of Ross’s combat boots out by the front step, double- and then triple-checking the locks at night, and leaving the curtains closed all the time, when I used to love leaving the front windows open to breeze and sun. I still slept poorly and eventually moved from my bedroom, with its wall and window facing the street, into the guest room at the back of the house. In bed at night, I imagined the red lines of bullet trajectories piercing plaster and sheetrock, taking splintered bites out of the walls and lacing a red net around and above me. I was conscious at every minute of how my house, my situation, might look to Hip-Hop, and I was squeamish about doing anything that might reveal my plans to move, to cede the territory to him and admit vulnerability or fear.
I’ve moved so many times that the checklist of how to dismantle a life for transport is automatic. I went room by room, mostly at night after work and school, making piles and throwing out nonessentials by the armload. I made trip after trip down the dark pathway in my backyard to the trashcan, feeling guilty that I wasn’t sorting and loading everything into my car for a trip to Goodwill. One morning after a week of nightly cleaning and packing, I went to drag the trashcan out to the street for trash day and noticed it felt suspiciously light. I looked inside and saw it was nearly empty. Most of what I’d thrown out had been scavenged overnight, and I couldn’t decide whether to feel relieved that someone in need had found my cast-offs or creeped out that to do so they’d gotten into my backyard and made multiple trips back and forth under the window where I slept.
The garage was the last room on my pre-move prep list, and I started on it early one morning, leaving the door open wide so I could rip down cobwebs and sweep the dust out into the driveway. I was bent over, hauling a heavy pickup jack out from beneath the workbench, when I heard a loud wolf whistle pierce the air. I stood up and turned around. Hip-Hop’s house was still and quiet in the morning light, but the windows were open, shaded by the opaque gray of the screens. The whistle repeated, followed by a low laugh. I raised my middle finger.
“Cunt!” he called back. It was our only conversation. I moved the next day.
. . .
Where I live now the houses are identical—white stucco with terra cotta roof tiles and carefully manicured front lawns that are maintained by crews of groundskeepers. We each have our own little patches of backyard for which we are responsible, short squares walled in by chest-high stucco fences. Touches of individualism stick out here—tops of patio umbrellas, wind chimes in different registers, flags. Paved sidewalks and walking trails snake in between the neighborhoods, and identical playgrounds nestle between the houses at regular intervals. Children roam untended at all hours, the only stipulation being a community rule that they all have to wear helmets if they ride bikes or Razor scooters. The streets are named in clustered, military themes, and my little circuit of warplane names abuts an area named after Pacific conflict zones. There’s actually a Bataan Street. I imagine how I’d give directions to a party I was hosting if I lived there: “Right, it’s called Bataan—not the stick, the Death March.” It’s so quiet here.
Out my front window is a cul-de-sac, and I see three houses instead of just one. Each has a plywood sign planted in the front yard with its resident’s squadron logo. I live near a Blue Diamond, a Black Ace, and a Top Hatter, and I’ve been told that my own sign, a Black Knight, is only ten dollars. I jolly myself along with the fiction that it’s kind of like gang territory—we need to represent and know who’s who—and uneasily place my order. The overt labeling of my new little house, its walls still smelling of a fresh coat of all-purpose white, itches and pulls like a tight wool sweater. Again, the yawning of my garage door late at night reveals the temporariness and chaos of where I find myself. The pickup remains parked on the street because half the garage space is devoted to boxes I don’t see the point of unpacking.
. . .
It’s still another two months until Ross comes home to this house he’s never seen. I’ve decided to pass the time training to participate in the Marine Mud Run, a five-mile obstacle course race held every year on the base, operated by screaming drill instructors and paved in knee-deep mud. I need something to push against in this rectilinear world of perfect houses and families, all living behind a high razor-wire fence with weapons bunkers out in the fields. I need another fiction I can immerse myself in, that of a one-day marine recruit up against impossible odds, so I can feel like I have a place and a purpose here, even though I feel stuck in between, neither wholly civilian nor wholly military.
In season 4 of The Wire, Omar sets out early one morning in lavender silk pajamas to walk to the corner store for a pack of Newports. Even though there’s a price on his head, he’s able to make the trip safely unarmed, his reputation alone preceding him. “Omar steppin’, y’all!” little kids and adults alike yell ahead of him. “Clear out, Omar steppin’!” That one scene speaks volumes about my obsession with Omar as a character and also my love for the subgenre of gangsta rap within hip-hop. Both speak to a world where you fight to establish a right to your own place and where that right is not challenged lightly. The two are also heavily rooted in their particular settings—The Wire’s is Baltimore, or a least one fictionalized version of it, and gangsta rap has a long history of territory identification, the late-’90s East Coast/West Coast feud being only one example. No one raps about moving every eight months, stealing little bits of each new place like a magpie, and never really calling anywhere home. The new kid never has any cred.
. . .
I ran three miles to nowhere on the treadmill at the gym the other day, one among a long series lined up in front of a huge bay of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto a football field surrounded by a track. On either side of me, well-muscled black marines pounded out a faster pace, no doubt preparing to shoot past me in the coming race, leaving me flailing far behind in the mud. Six inmates from the base jail, a temporary holding center for military personnel who’ve run afoul of the law, were outside on the field in front of us taking turns rocking a six-foot-tall tractor tire end over end as a man with a whistle watched. Two of them were red-faced and laughing, but the other four looked pale and angry. I wondered what rules they’d broken, and if the humiliation of this pointless exercise would keep them from doing it again or only increase their impulse to buck.
Runner’s high took hold as I watched them and my vision seemed to sparkle and shift as endorphins crashed through my brain. I felt good and free, I felt like I could fly. My iPod blasted in my ears with the only music that can keep me going when I’m so close to collapse. Thug life, cop killer, gang banger, dope slinger—a white, middle-class navy wife on her daily run.
Rachel Jackson holds an MFA in Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno. Originally from Austin, Texas, she has lived in Florida, California, Scotland, and Saudi Arabia, and is currently at work on her first book.